From Fandom to Phantom: Making the Force That Binds Us

In my last article I talked about how the Star Wars dreams we had as younglings can come true. For this fan, it turned into the reality of being involved in the making of the saga, starting with portraying Lt. Gavyn Sykes in Episode I. But as my work on the movies progressed, strange events were to unfold that made me question whether the Force had been working in more mysterious ways, to bind true followers such as you and I into that galaxy far far away….

Christian J. Simpson above Natalie Portman on Episode I

Christian J. Simpson (above Natalie Portman) in Episode I.

And now, as production ramps up in London on the latest movie, Star Wars 7 with Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and co, though we won’t spoil the secrets going on there or reveal whether any of the Star Wars 7 rumors are in the right galaxy, it was ten years ago that the London shoots of “the latest” Star Wars movie to be released took place — the epic Revenge of the Sith. It was there that I was lucky enough to be Anakin Skywalker’s stand-in for Darth Vader himself — after all, “always two there are.” So why don’t I take you on a small behind the scenes journey into the making of a new Star Wars movie.

Though I have many fantastic tales to tell from my work on this film that began in August 2004 (let me know in the comments if you’d like to hear them!), let’s hyperspace forward in time a little.

It’s January 31, 2005.

It’s the last ever day of shooting on a George Lucas Star Wars movie.

And it’s my birthday.

Christiansimpson is standing-in for Christensen.

It’s all just coincidence, I’m sure. Though, my name causes some confusion for director of photography Giles Nuttgens, so I suggest, “Call me Anakin”, to which he replies, “I probably will!” And he does. As did a certain George Lucas back in 2004, before getting to know me better, even if it was only, “OK, Anakin, move a little to your right!” Can you imagine?!

For some reason, although we’re on the hallowed ground of Elstree Film Studios instead of the usual Shepperton Studios — and are where A New Hope was shot in 1976 – I have to wonder why we are not on Elstree’s new “George Lucas Stage”? And why were we told back in August 2004 that the final day of shooting would specifically wait until January 31? I’m to find out soon enough…

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For this final day, people have traveled from across the world for just five hours work. I ask Cecila Lanza, the sound boom operator, if she’s come here from Italy today? “Too right!” is the proud response. This is Star Wars after all.

Cecilia Lanza operates the boom microphone for Simpson in 2004

Cecilia Lanza operates the boom microphone in 2004.

Before we shoot I have to sign a confidentiality agreement, but instead of “January 31, 2005,” I accidentally write, “January 31, 1973.” My birthdate. This is to prove interesting…

We hurry as Natalie Portman has to catch a 2 p.m. flight back home to L.A. Why she can’t just use the Royal Cruiser — she’s lying unconscious in this scene after Anakin Force chokes her — I do not know. And filming with her is a great Ewan McGregor double, as Ewan can’t make it himself.

 

Portman and Ewan’s double get set up by the Cruiser sick bay bed

Portman and Ewan’s double get set up by the Cruiser sick bay bed.

As Anakin’s stand-in my primary job is to act the scene out whilst the actors are in make-up, so the lighting, camera, focus, and so on can be perfected for the shoot. Often you have to act all the lines, to perfect the sound, and for the actors to see how the scene has been blocked through. (Somewhere there’s a version of Sith with me playing Anakin!) And blocking is walking through the scene to the various marks your feet should hit on certain words. No pressure then! (Lesson ends.)

For the first shot, Lord Vader (so, I) must lie on the floor in a twisted pose. Oh, the glamor! It’s to reshoot a scene where Anakin landed badly. Twenty-five minutes pass, my elbow digging into the ground, hips contorted. Even yoga never hurt this much (I said yoga, not Yoda.)

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Suddenly I see a dark Vaderesque robotic gloved arm moving down towards me in Force-choke-pose! Aghh, Vader is going to kill me! Wait. Whew! It’s only Hayden Christensen offering me a friendly hand to help me up, and to shake while he’s at it. Once up, I pat him on the arm and say, “Good to see you! So this is it hey? Last day!” He responds, “Yeh, this is it, last day”.

But then I hear George Lucas say something over my shoulder about the “first day” whilst he adjusts a light. George is a hands-on filmmaker, and Mr. Do-It-All is referring to a revelation I shall soon discover…

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I show Hayden where his marks are, where to take his eye line, where to put his left arm, and am about to figure out how to phrase where to place his bottom when luckily he lays in the right place anyway.

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Cut! It’s in the can (no pun intended). Then George says, “We need someone to read the lines with Hayden.” Second assistant director Sue Wood says, “It’s all right, Christian’s doing it!” Yeah, George, it’s all right, Christian’s doing it! She’d cleared it with me earlier.

Then I realize this is a pivotal scene. Anakin has just turned to the dark side and been christened Lord Darth Vader. Mace Windu has just been murdered by Palpatine (spoilers!). So when George and Ben Burtt edit this, they’ll have my voice to guide the timing. This Star Wars lover is Palpatine for this monumental day. How the tables have turned Hayden — first I was merely your stand-in, now I AM THE MASTER! 

No, seriously, all through this scene Hayden actually calls me “Master.”

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I contemplate doing my best Sidious impersonation, and tempting though it is, I instead go for a more professional angle rather than put Hayden off, and so I do my own voice with just enough Sidious intonations.

But George comes over and gives Hayden some direction, then comes over and directs me. At which point the seven-year-old inside you screams, “George Lucas is directing you on Star Wars!

George (to me): “Where you say ‘along with all the senators,’ you can make it a little more menacing when you say ‘senators,’ because his girlfriend is one of the senators so really he’s saying they’re gonna kill her…so make it a little more dark…”

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“More eevil,” I retort. “Yeah, evil,” he says and goes back to the monitors to watch.

I love how he tells me the story in such Earthly terms, as if I don’t know Anakin’s “girlfriend” is Padmé. George, I know your epic story!

Excerpt from Pablo Hidalgo’s set diary on StarWars.com

Excerpt from Pablo Hidalgo’s set diary on StarWars.com.

We do about 10 takes, and as we go on, Hayden and I find more of a balance with the Force, I get more menacing, and Hayden’s looks back at me react and respond by becoming more disgusted with Sidious, and perhaps himself. And that is what you see in the film. As a stand-in it’s tricky to hold the other actor’s gaze, as I know I don’t look like Sidious, and he knows I don’t look like Sidious (I hope!). But, one time I choose to look at Hayden the whole time, so as to achieve a variety of takes out of such a versatile actor. Here is what happens. Hayden instead says: “I agree. The Council’s first move will be against the Council…” Oops! D’oh! Cut! Then a walkie-talkie interrupts with a blaring, “ARE WE STILL ROLLING IN THERE?” Not missing a beat Anakin replies, “Yes, Master.”

The scene soon wraps, George is happy, and we move on to the last ever shot in a Lucas Star Wars movie.

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While they set up, I sit in a chair and just savor the moment, like I did once back on Episode I, sitting on top of the Naboo Palace steps in the rare British/Naboo sunshine, gazing down over Theed Plaza as Lt. Sykes. Words echo through my mind. You’re here, again, somehow. And you just did a scene with Lord Vader. And Lucas directed you. And you spoke the last Star Wars dialogue ever recorded on film by Lucas. At this point I laugh a little and shake my head. Wouldn’t you?

Vader himself comes over to me and says, “Hey, thanks for reading the lines, you did great! It was perfectly done.”  Whatever you say, my Lord.

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A few takes of a quick “sprinting in front of a one-ton camera chasing you damn fast on its moving crane” scene for me, then Hayden, and then George finally calls time.

“That’s it! Rick, that’s the end, after 28 years.” He sounds understandably emotional. Then there’s a polite and respectful patter of applause. We all know what it means.

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I thank the great Rick McCallum for having me back. He replies, “Hey, thanks for all your help, thanks for reading the lines.” I shake his hand then turn to Hayden who says to me, “Thanks for everything, man.”

“Oh, it was my pleasure,” I say back to the dark lord of the Sith.

But before it is time to go to lunch, George Lucas has a surprise for me — and us all — as he reveals why we’re on this soundstage, on this date.

For this very Stage 8 at Elstree is where Star Wars began filming in the UK back in 1976.

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Wonderful! Yet, why did he pick today, January 31? Well, it seems George Lucas started writing the first draft of Star Wars

When I was born.

His first 40-page handwritten draft was called “Journal of the Whills,” and began in January 1973 with:

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And there I was, on my birthday again, on the exact spot where the first-ever scenes were filmed, acting out the last-ever scene filmed, moments after Palpatine killed “Mace Windy” — the above character first put on paper 32 years ago.

Probably still all just coincidence…right?

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But so special is Star Wars to people like you and I, that it seemed just possible in some mystical way that the Force had perhaps bound this fan to Lucas’ Star Wars from its beginning, to be there on its last day.

Whatever the case, I felt so privileged to be present to share that final moment, and play my very small part in the huge machine. George didn’t know it was my birthday that day. None of the crew knew it. But I did, and that was more than enough for me.

Just like with the Force, we are all bound together, symbiotic life forms as Qui-Gon Jinn might say. We each have a role that we — or others — may not be aware of until much later in life, and it’s an effect like a butterfly fluttering its wings in a land far, far away… So regardless of whether you are apparently “celebrated” or feel seemingly insignificant at times, remember we are all simply equal human beings inhabiting this earth, with our unique part to play on the grand stage of life. And that’s what makes the galaxy go round.

For this fan, that journey was to guide me over the 10 years that followed, from being born a humble (not farm) boy from a small suburb of London, to end up in Hollywood, writing, performing, composing, living with the love of my life, and adoring what I do. That would not have happened if it were not for George Lucas putting pen to paper back in January 1973.

And so I’d love to hear below how Mr Lucas doing that has directly shaped your life, too.

Until next time remember, the Force will be with you, always….

If you would like to hear more of these tales, including ones about holding Luke’s lightsaber, using a Force push against Ewan, standing-in for Anthony Daniels, becoming a female droid, or flying Anakin’s starfighter to the opera, send a comment through the Force, or just type one below.

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